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Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane Seemed Impossible – Then Came a Startling Clue (nytimes.com)
119 points by tlb 69 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Tighar, the group mentioned in the article, has been pushing this photo for many years, and about every 18 months or so they manage to get somebody new to do a story about it. Considering nothing has ever come of it, I'm less than convinced.

Here's a reasonably good skeptical summary of their efforts written a couple years ago:


Thanks for sharing this very well written article. I loved the part about the picture of Hitler turning out to be Moe from the Three Stooges.

I don't have a ready reference, but my recollection is:

1. she wasn't a master of the airplane, having crashed it on takeoff before due to overloading

2. she had a history of overruling her navigator and being wrong

3. she tried to find a tiny island at the limit of the airplane's range in a time when navigation wasn't that accurate

4. did not have proper training on the radio and direction finder equipment

5. flew into a headwind and kept going

6. proper technique at the time was to fly towards the centerline between Howland and another island, doubling the likelihood of one being in visual range. She did not do this.

This was at a time when such an attempt would be very, very unforgiving of mistakes. I don't think there's much of a mystery. (WW2 saw a lot of airplanes disappear over the Pacific with no trace.)

Lindbergh would have had a very hard time missing Europe. His biggest problems were fatigue, icing, and headwinds. I think Lingbergh took a much more calculated risk. His predecessors disappeared without a trace.

P.S. I talked with my father about this long ago, who was a B-17 lead navigator in the war over Europe. The crews flew their B-17s over the Atlantic to England. He navigated using a sextant and a chronometer, and they were 6 miles off when hitting the Irish coast. He said many B-17s were lost without a trace in the Atlantic crossings.

Citations needed for pretty much all of that. Especially the bit about Earhart having a history of overruling Noonan, since by most accounts they had a very open working relationship built on trusting and relying on each other's respective capabilities.

Also, you followed up with a post about trained Navy pilots going missing on relatively simple flights between two giant landmasses where all you have to do is literally fly east or west. Earhart and Noonan were able to handle the navigation for much more difficult flights than crossing the Atlantic. So yes, there's still very much of a mystery as to what happened to them.

> Citations needed

A fair question. Here's some detail:

> Especially the bit about Earhart having a history of overruling Noonan

My reference for that was a documentary on Earhart on TV, sorry don't recall the title. When they crossed the Atlantic and hit Africa, Noonan said turning right to find out where they were, Earhart overruled and turned left, and was wrong. Fortunately, they had enough fuel to correct the mistake. The documentary said their relationship was not as collegial as you characterized it.

The headwind thing came from it, too.

B-17s were Army Air Force, not Navy. The WW2 planes going missing over the Pacific were often B-29s flying great distances over water to attack Japan. They didn't have trouble finding Japan, but finding Iwo Jima on the return wasn't easy.

The bit about how to navigate to a tiny island came from my father. Him being a trained navigator, I think that's fair. Besides, don't you think it makes sense?

The radio issues you can find in the wikipedia article about Earhart. The crash with the overloaded airplane you can find a brief mention of there, too.

> So yes, there's still very much of a mystery as to what happened to them.

Not to me, not to a trained navigator, either. For comparison, when JFK jr disappeared, the first thing my dad said was spacial disorientation, a perennial killer of inexperienced pilots flying into poor visibility conditions. After weeks of investigations and conspiracy theories, the investigators reluctantly made that conclusion, as well. Nobody wanted to believe a mistake that simple could have taken down JFK jr.

Dug out my Jeppesen Private Pilot book which has that anecdote... (pg 9-38)

... As Amelia sighted the African coast in the distance, Fred, who was seated at the navigator's station behind the auxiliary fuel tanks, passed Amelia a note containing the latest course correction based upon his calculations:

    3:36 Change to 36 degrees
    Estimate 79 miles to
    Dakar from 3:36 p.m.
While Fred was an experienced navigator, Amelia chose to disregard his instructions. For some reason, she believed that they could not have drifted as far off course as Fred's navigation indicated. In fact, Amelia scribbled under Fred's note: What put us north?

... Amelia followed her intuition and turned north upon reaching the coast instead of south as Fred had instructed. After flying for another 50 miles, the two found themselves at Saint-Louis, Senegal, many miles north of their intended destination. If Amelia had turned south when she reached the coast, they would have arrived at Dakar within a half hour of 3:36 p.m. The occurrence, which Amelia later admitted was her error, fortunately only resulted in a short delay ...

Thank you :-)

I saw that "documentary" as well, as I recall most of it was speculation unsupported by any third party sources.

Also, the Wikipedia article doesn't say what you claim it says. It in fact states that the overloaded plabe was a test flight attempted to determine how much weight the plane could hold, and that neither Earhart or Noonan were able to use Morse code but could otherwise operate their radios.

Not knowing Morse code was a much more serious failing than you imply. Morse code can travel much further with far more fidelity than voice. Most radio communications at the time were Morse.

None of the issues mentioned below should have happened if Earhart had properly learned how to use the equipment, prepared for the flight with with best practices, and coordinated with the ship & ground radio operators beforehand.


"Neither Earhart nor Noonan were capable of using Morse code."

"At least twice during the world flight, Earhart failed to determine radio bearings at 7500 kHz."

"Through a series of misunderstandings or errors (the details of which are still controversial), the final approach to Howland Island using radio navigation was not successful."

"The Electra had been equipped to transmit a 500 kHz signal that Itasca could use for radio direction finding, but some of that equipment had been removed."

"The antenna was bulky and heavy, so the trailing wire antenna was removed to save weight."

"Earhart's only training on the system was a brief introduction by Joe Gurr at the Lockheed factory, and the topic had not come up. A card displaying the band settings of the antenna was mounted so it was not visible."

"the aviators had cut off their long-wire antenna, due to the annoyance of having to crank it back into the aircraft after each use."

"It was at this point that the radio operators on the Itasca realized that their RDF system could not tune in the aircraft's 3105 kHz frequency"

"If transmissions were received from the Electra, most if not all were weak and hopelessly garbled. Earhart's voice transmissions to Howland were on 3105 kHz, a frequency restricted in the United States by the FCC to aviation use.[Note 35] This frequency was thought to be not fit for broadcasts over great distances. When Earhart was at cruising altitude and midway between Lae and Howland (over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from each) neither station heard her scheduled transmission at 0815 GCT.[166] Moreover, the 50-watt transmitter used by Earhart was attached to a less-than-optimum-length V-type antenna."

Much of it should be documentable, like the headwinds, the overloaded plane crash, and turning the wrong way at Africa which should be in the flight log.

It's well known that an overloaded airplane can handle very different, and for a pilot inexperienced with it it can be very, very dangerous. Heck, I was watching "Alaska Crash Investigations" just the other day, where the cause of a crash shortly after takeoff was determined to be due to the airplane being overloaded by 500 lbs. Crashing overloaded bombers at the end of the runway was a popular way to die in WW2, as they were always deliberately overloading them.

Linbergh famously overloaded the Spirit of St Louis and figured his biggest risk of death came from getting the machine off the ground.

>overloaded the Spirit of St Louis

Can we use the word 'overloaded' here? Lucky Lindy's plane was custom-built, basically a flying gas tank.

It is not like he took an off-the-shelf plane and loaded it beyond its design specifications.

That's a good point.

Lindbergh wrote:

"No plane ever took off so heavily loaded; and my propeller is set for cruising, not for take-off. Of course our test flights at San Diego indicate that it will take off—theoretically at least. But since we didn't dare try a full load from Camp Kearney's stony ground, the wings now have to lift a thousand pounds more than they ever carried before—five thousand pounds to be lifted by nothing more tangible than air."

He also indicated that the airplane was not stressed to land with such a heavy load.

-- The Spirit of St. Louis

I checked the Github repo and she didn't even contribute the majority of the code.

In my opinion, the most fascinating corroborating evidence of the location of Amelia's crash is the diary of a 15yo girl in Flordia that purportedly received a reflected shortwave radio broadcast by Amelia after the crash and wrote notes contemporaneously as she heard the transmission. On the last page, she recorded that she heard something that sounded like New York. The visible shipwreck on Nikumaroro is SS Norwich City. https://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Documents/Noteb...

Wow, that gave me chills to read the transcript. If true, that's an amazing story. Do we know if Earhart had a shortwave radio onboard?

Long-range wireless communication necessarily limits you to shortwave bands, exclusively if you don't have satellites. Earhart most certainly had a shortwave transceiver onboard. It is totally plausible and unsurprising that hams in the United States would have been able to hear Earhart's distress calls. Additionally, this was in the age before vacuum tubes opened up frequencies higher than HF for widespread commercial use -- for example UHF (used for television broadcasts) was still largely experimental around the time Earhart disappeared. So consumer wireless devices were still mostly clustered in and around the shortwave bands.

Any more analysis of this ? Do the numbers help?

My first thought was they should have Dr. Ballard searching for MH370.

A quick search found this in an AMA he did.

"I offered immediately on hearing of its loss to help in any way possible either advising them on how best to hunt for the airliner or to do it with my own ship and technology but they turned me down. You can't help unless you are invited to help and they clearly wanted to do it themselves. Recently, I met the president of Malaysia Airlines who offered to send me the search data to look at just in case they might have missed something. I am still waiting for the data but don't expect to get it."


> or to do it with my own ship and technology but they turned me down. You can't help unless you are invited to help

Didn't the guy who found the initial wreckage do it on his own inspite of the Malaysian gov't?

His tale adds yet another bizarre twist to the story


There's a big difference between picking up wreckage on beaches and putting your ship in the middle of a coordinated search pattern.

The island he’s singled out was flown over within days of her disappearance and the pilot did not see any signs of an airplane.

It would be wonderful to finally solve this mystery, but it’s not as though this idea is some recent breakthrough. It was thought of at the time, which is why the pilot was sent to look.

I was on a SAR mission a couple of years ago for a lost aircraft outside of Truckee, CA. In that case, there was flight radar data available for most of the flight path, Civil Air Patrol was out in force with multiple overhead flyovers, CHP and Air National Guard were also out, we were receiving intermittent ELT signals, there were hundreds of ground searchers and UTVs/ATVs/snowmobiles, and all of our search activity was recorded and coordinated through a well-organized incident command with specific search assignments for each day.

We still failed to locate the aircraft. It was found a month or so later by some random recreationalists.

Any number of circumstances may have prevented it from being spotted the first time. It's far, far harder to locate missing aircraft than most people realize.

Just a thought exercise to show why this is so hard: let's say you know where the aircraft was a minute before crashing but not the direction of it. If an aircraft is flying at a modest 200 km/h (that's a Cessna 172 cruising) then in a single minute it can fly more than 3km. The area of a circle with a radius of that is close to 35km^2. That's half of Manhattan Island.

How difficult would be to fly one hd filming plane above, then scour the imagery with a fine comb, possibly computer vision aided?

Sometimes there are no traces left behind. In 1947, Avro Lancastrian airliner flew into a mountain in the Andes and triggered an avalanche that buried the wreck. Compressed snow slowly turned into ice and became a part of the glacier. Over the next 50 years, the wreck moved down the mountain with ice until it eventually melted and revealed parts of the aircraft. They were found by two mountaineers in 1998.


If an aircraft goes missing, we're usually dealing with mountains, oceans or remote areas with dense tree covers. Remote sensing is very limited in these environments.


A similar tactic was used when Steve Fossett disappeared (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Fossett#Disappearance_an...), and it was entirely unsuccessful.

There are a few challenges:

1. There is a direct relationship between the time and effort required to take imagery, and the image resolution. Which is to say, if you want imagery that's detailed enough that you can find likely evidence without a lot of false positives, then you have to spend a ton of time in the air at low altitude, and if you want to effectively search a large area, then you have to spend time at higher altitude where you're too high up to get useful imagery.

2. Humans aren't good at sorting out natural features from unnatural ones. My favorite example of this is the face on Mars. Same deal when trying to search through imagery for debris. People have a preconception of what a plane crash looks like, and it's usually wrong. They'll confuse light-colored rocks, trees broken by snow loading, and all kinds of other things for evidence, while completely missing actual evidence. So the problem with these systems for search managers is that once someone flags something in a picture, you're kinda obligated to check on it, which takes resources away from more likely search areas.

3. The technology isn't there (yet). Computer vision may get better than humans at this soon, but not yet, and certainly not in the kind of technology that even well-funded search organizations or adventurers has access to. NSA? Maybe. Us? Nah, best we get is grainy photographs of features 1m across from high up.

IR imagery currently has similar problems, there's just too much background noise in most cases.

Some kind of multi-spectrum imagery fed into a big convolutional NN might be able to do a better job of telling the difference between a rock and some twisted metal and plastic composites at 1m resolution, but I don't know if anybody's actually invented that yet.

I'm using 1m resolution here as a substitute value for whatever would be appropriate to cover a large area with reasonable resources. After the Camp Fire, Alameda County brought a really cool tech team out that covered large areas of the burn with imagery from drones. They got a 1cm aerial resolution that was good enough to satisfy insurance investigators. But, it required a lot of flight time and computing power to do that, and they covered a relatively small area compared to the search area for a missing aircraft.

You would need different angles especially if there was tree cover or mountainous terrain.

The idea they're having, which is hidden in the article, is that she crashed in the shallow water around the island, and the wreckage slipped down the underwater slope, out of sight. At a later time, landing gear was pictured on the beach, broken loose from the rest of the debris, still underwater.

The article addresses this point, in case you missed it.

> According to the official report, a search pilot saw “signs of recent habitation” there. But because nobody waved them down, the search team left and the Navy dismissed the theory. What the sailors didn’t know was that the island had been uninhabited for 40 years.

> Earhart landed on the very edge of the island, Dr. Ballard believes. As tides rose, her plane may have slipped down the underwater slope.

> What the sailors didn’t know was that the island had been uninhabited for 40 years.

It seems that it was occupied for several days by the 24 survivors of the shipwrecked SS Norwich City in November 1929, who were forced to abandon the wreck as it caught fire. I believe it is the ship in the photograph.


> Mr. Campbell shared the photo with experts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who used classified technology to enhance the picture.

I was curious about this since I hadn't heard of this agency before. I have no experience with GEOINT but they seem to have a pretty impressive GH organization


As the NSA and NRO have gotten more PR, I think the NGA has taken the mantle of "biggest intelligence agency you've never heard of".

Probably the most famous thing about the NGA is the time when President Obama was doing a meet-and-greet at a Five Guys in the DC area. He asked someone in line where they worked, and when the answer was "National Geospatial-intelligence Agency" it sounded like it was Obama's first time hearing about it Edit: Link to video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1TxMKaYHYA&t=5m55s

Archive of linked analysis of photos showing landing gear and 3D rendered / lit landing gear. (Because original server might be overloaded I could not reach it)


That article seems rather tendentious. It claims that 'Jeff Glickman and the State Dept. photo analysts looked at the image and asked, “What does the thing on the reef look like?” They concluded, “It looks like Electra landing gear wreckage.”' but, as told in the article, the only candidate they considered for “what does the thing on the reef look like?” was, in fact, the wreckage of an Electra landing gear, damaged, and adjusted until it was possible to say that the image was "consistent with Lockheed Electra landing gear components" (at least they did not attempt to sharpen the image, on account of the risk of "introducing information that isn’t really there.") (Update: after seeing several other zooms of the object, I get the impression that the one chosen for this article did undergo some form of processing.)

AFAIK, "consistent with" merely means that the hypothesis cannot be ruled out, but that does not seem to be a high bar when the image is very small and blurred.

So what else might they have considered as a candidate for the object? How about anything that might of been swept off the nearby wreck by nearly eight years of storms to start with, not to mention tree stumps, pieces of coral and other natural detritus that storms regularly move around? There seems to be a lot of confirmation bias here.

You've touched on the core problem of everything Earhart-related that TIGHAR does. (And most of what they do is Earhart-related, and most all modern Earhart-related news originates with TIGHAR). They start with the premise that "Earhart and Noonan crashed at the edge of Nikumaroro" and then check every single piece of evidence they find to see if maybe it might support that assertion. This is a completely backwards way to do such an investigation.

The Skeptoid link in the current first reply goes into all this in detail, here it is again if anyone missed it: https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4295

And another follow-up from Skeptoid: https://skeptoid.com/blog/2012/03/20/more-amelia-earhart-non...

The island was in fact one of the original suspects when Earhart's plane first went missing but by the time the US Navy arrived several weeks later, storms and natural wave action would have washed most of the plane away.

The point of the analysis was to see if there was photographic evidence to suggest that it might have been the correct island all along.

Yes, it could be a tree trump or some other debris--but it also looks exactly like the wreckage of a particular part of her plane, which is enough to justify a more detailed search.

Like the Bismark's final resting spot, this island has a significant underwater seamount. If the plane landed on the beach and sunk, if could have slid thousands of feet into crevices in the seamount or even all the way down to the abyssal plain surrounding the island.

I agree that there are other factors that make Nikumaroro a candidate for Earhart's final resting place.

Calling the image exactly like an Electra undercarriage leg is quite a stretch, IMHO - even that interpretation's proponents merely called it "consistent".

It does look exactly like a blurry, distant photo of an Electra leg...

That's why they're launching another search. It could be other things, but it could also be debris from the exact same type of plane she was flying.

> It does look exactly like a blurry, distant photo of an Electra leg.

At least for the sake of argument, I will grant that a blurry, distant photo of an Electra leg might look exactly like this one, but in such a case, the exactitude would be in the correspondence of two blurred, small images, and that exactitude does not transfer to the identification of the imaged object as an Electra leg. You have to ask what else could produce a matching photograph, and if it is sufficiently distant and blurred, just about anything of approximately the right reflectivity would work.

I hope you're right and they find it.

But let's also be honest here... the blurry spec smaller than a grain of rice in the original photo doesn't look like anything, specifically. [1]

It doesn't look like an aircraft landing gear at all. Now you can make an aircraft landing gear look like it if you make it blurry, but that blurry grain of rice looks like nothing.

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20190812112844im_/https://tighar...

The text is still in the page.

    console.log(document.querySelector('#site-content').innerText.replace(/(.{80}\w*)\s*/g, '$1\n'))

Sure - but if that changes down the road, the archive.li link will still show the proper content.

Ballard you say, so what does US military need to cover up this time around?

Funny, I just watched this last week - https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/The_37%27s_(episode)

This is exciting news!

I subscribe to the Wash Post. Not the NYT. Wish I could read it, though.

I ended up subscribing to both. Here's another version of the story:


The paywalls are implemented in javascript FYI, no javascript: no paywall.

I thought NYT at least had switched to “the content loading beyond the teaser is implemented in JS, so no JS => no article”.

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